The Mixed Up Minds of Education Neocons

Today is the seventh birthday of the No Child Left Behind Act and I’d planned to celebrate it with a review of all that ails the decrepit law. In a stroke of luck, however, an op-ed appeared this morning that lets me address the most important political force behind NCLB – and its impotence – without having to go over all the law’s flaws for about the billionth time. (If you want the gory details, though, feel free to go here, here, here, here, here, here, here…)

NCLB is basically a neoconservative creation, a mangy mutt that tries to cram together both a supposed neocon distrust of government and a burning desire to use Washington to attack things neocons don’t like. So NCLB demands standards, tests and full “proficiency” by 2014 – an attempted assault on ”progressive” or just uncaring state and local education systems – while leaving states to write the standards and tests and define proficiency for themselves. The result is the exact opposite of what neocons say they want: Instead of “tight” accountability and “loose” bureaucratic directives, federal bureaucrats get a lot more power while state officials set “proficiency” levels at hovercraft elevations.

In light of NCLB’s failure – and decades of public-schooling stagnation – you’d think neocons would finally learn that no level of government is going to give them tough standards and accountability. The people employed by government simply have far too much sway over it, playing tireless politics to keep their power and kill accountability. Yet somehow even after they appear to have finally mastered this lesson, neocons turn right around and prove they’ve learned nothing at all.

On NRO today, leading neocon education analysts Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, put their contradictory thinking out for all to see. Almost immediately after decrying proposals to spend tens-of-billions on public schooling as part of a federal economic stimulus package – “taxpayers have spent decades funding an enormous, inefficient jobs program,” they write of public schooling – the neocon troika commences to list a bunch of federal undertakings they think would be just grand:

  • “Make the summers of 2009 and 2010 into ‘Summer of Learning.’ Invest billions to keep schools open from June to August across the land. Offer remedial classes, enrichment programs, sports camps, the works.”
  • “Create a service-learning program whereby teenagers can travel to national parks and landmarks, do valuable public works there, and get paid a little.”
  • Build “education data systems”

And, of course, there’s the obligatory call for national standards:

  • “Uncle Sam could also invest in creation of world-class national standards, tests, and even curricular materials”

Neocons, one can’t help but conclude, must be politically and logically bipolar, able to swing from “no more government” to “hell yes, more government!” in a single op-ed. At the very least, they evince little understanding of why government works or fails, or what it can and cannot do. They appear simply to call on government to get the things they want and decry its dangers to fight things they don’t. But that’s no way to make policy. I mean, it gave us No Child Left Behind, for crying out loud!